One of the best ways to improve your knowledge and proficiency in a new language is through watching movies or television programs aired in the target language, in this case Spanish. At first, you want to focus on programs that feature a lot of nonverbal content and gestures. Telenovelas or Mexican soap operas are an excellent source for improving your Spanish and learning new vocabulary. While newscasts are okay for this purpose, they tend to lack the rich nonverbal cues and gestures featured in soap operas. Soap operas are a good choice for this purpose not only because of the rich nonverbal content, but also because the same characters appear over and over again and many of the same phrases are repeated, giving the learner an opportunity to hear such phrases repeatedly in common everyday contexts.
A few of the big Spanish television stations have begun to provide captions in English. For example, Univision provides English captions for most of its telenovelas if you select CC3 from your television menu. Eventually, you will want to get away from using English captions and rely solely on processing the Spanish, but English captions are helpful when you are a beginning or intermediate student of the language.
Another option that works well is to watch English movies that have been dubbed in Spanish, preferibly movies that you have seen before in English so that you are already familiar with the overall plot. This is an excellent way to train your brain to recognize spoken Spanish. Focus on chunks of language rather than trying to translate or comprehend word for word. This is a process that already comes naturally in your native language and you want to begin to train your brain to perform this process in the new language.
Keep in mind that fluency in comprehension generally comes before comprehension in speaking. This sounds like a silly statement as it is obvious that you have to be able to understand a language before you can speak it fluently. Nevertheless, it is an important point that is often lost on students who are trying to learn a second language. Focus on comprehension first and your speaking ability will naturally improve. This is not to say that you will be able to speak the language fluently simply because you can understand it, but only that fluency in comprehension comes before fluency in speaking. Once you become fluent in understanding the language you can turn your attention to improving your speaking ability, but believe me it is much easier in the long run to first focus on fluency in comprehension.
Try to find programs and movies that are personally interesting to you. The more you are interested, the more easily you will assimilate the new vocabulary and linguistic structures. Fortunately, there are many places to find Spanish language content, both on the Internet or through cable or satellite television. Both cable and satellite television offer a Spanish language package, which includes Discovery and the History Channel in Spanish. In addition, two movie channels are available that show classic Mexican movies, De Pelicula and De Pelicula Clasica. Both of these channels are included in most basic Spanish channel packages for both satellite and cable.
Books are an excellent way to build fluency in a language and offer some unique advantages over other forms of learning. First, unlike a real conversation, you are not rushed when reading a book. You can read a sentence over and over until you understand the meaning. In a conversation, on the other hand, you will not usually have time to sit there and think about the meanings of words and phrases. Many people have attained native like fluency in a language through incorporating some sort of reading program. Kato Lomb, a famous Hungarian polyglot, was able to maintain fluency in several languages through intensive reading.
Although reading will not help you to improve your accent, it will help you to build a vast vocabulary and to see how common words and phrases are used in many different contexts. This, more than taking classes or studying textbooks, will help you to become fluent in terms of comprehending a second language.
In the new world of electronic media, followers of this approach enjoy many advantages that earlier students of languages did not. If you use a Kindle reader, for example, you can download a dictionary in the target language and set that dictionary as your primary dictionary. When you move the cursor to a word you have not seen before, a definition will automatically show up at the bottom of the screen.
Two factors will determine your success or failure in adopting this method. First, you should choose reading material that is personally interesting to you. If you like detective fiction, for example, try to find detective fiction written in Spanish or translated into Spanish. (See my page on my favorite books and Mexican authors) Second, try to choose material that is compatible with your level. If you are an intermediate student, try to find materials that are suitable for intermediate students. For example, if you like mysteries, you might start out with translated texts and short stories instead of full length novels. There have also been a number of books called readers published over the years that provide footnotes and a glossary, both of which define difficult words and phrases for the student.
Finally, as you read books or other printed material in Spanish, focus on word chunks rather than individual words. You do not have translate word for word, but rather you should focus on getting the overall meaning of a sentence as you read. If you simply must work with a dictionary at your side, mark or highlight the words you do not understand so that you can go back later and look them up rather than interrupting the flow of your reading. This will be difficult at first, but as your knowledge of vocabulary grows exponentially, you will find yourself having to consult a dictionary less and less. I usually kept two different types of dictionaries handy when I first started intensive reading in Spanish many years ago, a standard Spanish/English dictionary and a slang dictionary. I recommend several good dictionaries on my Favorites page.